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January 2005



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Among the Berbers








By Jeffrey Tayler

They came up suddenly, the two teenage shepherds, like a pair of wraiths, and as they followed us out of the dry riverbed and up the scree-covered mountainside, their hair wild and unwashed, their wool capes streaked with mud and draped rakishly over their shoulders, they watched us with wary, close-set eyes. My companions, Driss and Khalid, called out in Tamazight, the Berber language used in the High Atlas mountains, their words echoing down the canyon. The shepherds didn't answer. But when they heard Khalid speak to Driss in Arabic, they exchanged a worried look and scrambled back down the slope, shooting us fearful glances. With my sunburned skin and brightly colored pack, I must have looked like a Martian, and Driss and Khalid, though Berber, were dressed in Western clothes and were clearly outsiders—a fact that their Arabic, a language rarely heard at these altitudes, only drove home.
 
A storm was about to break over the treeless ridges above, and night was coming on. We set up our tents on a patch of level ground and climbed inside just as thunder sounded. I lay back and peered out through my tent's gauze window, grateful for the rest.
 
But not for long. On a nearby ridge, silhouetted against the thunderheads, appeared two middle-aged men armed with staffs. They began shouting at us in Tamazight, their voices hoarse with anger, their capes flailing in the wind as they approached the stony slope where we were. "Calm down, please, we're just passing through," Driss shouted to them from outside his tent.

"Who gave you the right to cross our valley?" the men yelled, brandishing their staffs.
 
"The chief of Bou Terfine!" Driss said, referring to a village authority we'd visited a few hours before. "Please, there's going to be a storm. We mean no harm. Let us camp here for the night."

Invoking the village chief only made them angrier. Calling us intruders, the fiercer of the two slammed down his staff and issued an ultimatum: Storm or no storm, we had to get off their land, and fast—or else.

We still had some 400 miles (650 kilometers) of mountains left to cross, and this was an ominous beginning to the trip, though entirely in keeping with the spirited history of the people we call Berbers. (Most prefer the name Amazigh, or Free Person, but the term Berber still holds sway outside the region.) Numbering some 25 million in North Africa and concentrated today in Morocco and Algeria, they are an ethnically distinct tribal people who inhabited these mountains and deserts thousands of years before the Arab conquest brought Islam here in the seventh century A.D.

In the centuries after the conquest many Berbers were driven from the plains to the high country, where they sought arable land, grass for their livestock, and, above all, freedom. Berbers in the lowlands adopted the cultures, religions, and, to an extent, the languages of their conquerors, who have included, besides the Arabs, the Romans and the French. But those isolated in the highlands managed to preserve their identity, their language, and, as was becoming clear, their independence.

My trek had begun near Midelt in central Morocco and was scheduled to end two months later at one of the country's most scenic spots, the waterfalls of Imouzzer des Ida Ou Tanane, by the Atlantic. This route would take me through the heart of the Berbers' domain, where I would encounter traditional Berber culture. I'd hired two Berber men to travel with me: Driss Hemmi, an affable 30-year-old mountain guide from Midelt, who earned his living taking the region's few tourists through accessible canyons of the eastern High Atlas, and Khalid Ouamer, a mild-mannered farmer, 23 years old, from a village  near Midelt.

To carry our gear and supplies, I'd bought a docile brown mule whose sad eyes and strong legs told me he was born to suffer the trials ahead of us. Right now, of course, we faced an immediate test: thunder rumbling through the canyon, darkness setting in, shepherds threatening violence. I suggested to Driss that we offer them money—the usual means of settling such disputes in Morocco. He frowned. "I've tried, but they won't listen." But then, on impulse, he pulled out his guide license, showed it to the shepherds, and explained that our mission was to traverse the High Atlas. The license appeared to grant Driss legitimacy in their eyes, and his explanation calmed them down.
 
One of the shepherds, squatting in front of my tent, regarded me with hard eyes. He spoke to me through Driss. In 1992, he said, a group of Arabic-speaking foreigners turned up here with plans to overthrow Morocco's King Hassan II. The intruders were captured after the shepherd and his family alerted the authorities. No wonder some Berbers are suspicious of outsiders speaking Arabic, whose ranks may also include government officials from the lowlands with their hands out for a bribe.

I apologized for disturbing him and promised we'd leave in the morning. Without cracking a smile, he agreed to let us stay, and left. Within minutes the clouds lowered, lightning lit the ridges above us, and a pounding rain replaced drizzle. I tried to sleep but started awake frequently at the stomping of our mule tethered nearby.

Berbers live throughout North Africa, but nowhere has denial of their identity been more systematic than in Morocco, ethnically the most Berber of the region's countries. Although 60 percent of its population claim Berber descent and nearly 40 percent speak one of three Berber languages, Morocco's constitution declares the country part of Arab North Africa, proclaims Arabic as its official language, and makes no mention of the Berbers. This is a legacy of the Arab nationalism that sparked colonial-era independence movements in the region and, in the name of unity, ignored or even suppressed the cultures and languages of non-Arab peoples.
 
For many of the past 13 centuries, the High Atlas mountains—some of northern Africa's most remote and forbidding territory—have been controlled by armed Berber warlords who refused to submit to the Arab sultans ruling Morocco's plains. From 1912 to 1956, when most of Morocco was a protectorate of France, the French designated the mountains a tribal area and left them under the de facto control of collaborating local warlords.
 
The most famous of these was Thami el Glaoui, a tyrant who subjugated first Berbers of the High Atlas and later, when appointed to rule as France's viceroy in Morocco's south, Arabs of the nearby plains. Berber resistance never abated, however, and the mountaineers, along with Arab rebels in cities, drove out the French in 1956.
 
After independence, Morocco's Arab-controlled government adopted a hands-off policy in the mountains. In the cities, protests, underground newspapers, teaching of the old Berber alphabet, called Tifinagh, in classrooms, and talk of revolution have all been aspects of a nascent Berber struggle for cultural recognition that has grown stronger over time.
 
The urban Berbers leading this revival movement are intellectuals who use French, a language they associate with culture and human rights, rather than Arabic, which they despise as the language of their oppressors. But the language they're really pushing is Tamazight, or Berber. During the last decade of Hassan II's rule (which ended with the monarch's death in 1999), they founded Berber language and cultural associations, set up websites and newspapers, and, in 1994, won the right to broadcast news in Berber on national television.
 
In March 2000 several hundred Berber intellectuals signed the Berber Manifesto, which describes the humiliation and alienation many Berbers feel as members of an oppressed minority. The manifesto demands, among many other things, the development of the long-neglected Berber rural areas, state financial support for Berber cultural institutions, and the rewriting of school textbooks to accurately reflect the role Berbers have played in Moroccan history.
 
The movement won a victory in September 2003 when, for the first time, the Moroccan government permitted the teaching of the Berber language in nearly 15 percent of the country's primary schools and announced plans to extend instruction in Berber throughout all levels of education. Not enough, say the activists, who are pressing for full recognition of Berber people and language in the constitution. "We will struggle peacefully for recognition," Mohammed Chafik, the spiritual father of the Moroccan Berber movement, told me, "but if none of our demands are met, the movement may radicalize. Young people may revolt."

In the cities, perhaps. But many of Morocco's Berbers live far from any urban center, high up in the mountains, where drought, poverty, and hunger often prevail, and on my journey I meant to discover if the smoldering radical spirit of urban Berbers had spread to the mountains. If so, the High Atlas could again become what it has been in the past: guerrilla terrain par excellence, beyond the control of the government.

Storm clouds had given way to a scorching noontime sun as we descended a hairpin trail into a ravine of striated pink-and-yellow rock, heading toward a distant promontory atop which clustered the stone and adobe houses of the village of Tamalout, where Driss had a friend, Hossein Ounaminou.
 
We came upon Hossein riding a bony mule down the trail outside the village. He was a gaunt, bearded man in his mid-50s. From under a threadbare black turban, his warm eyes and snaggletoothed smile conveyed pleasure at seeing Driss again, and he welcomed us to Tamalout. Hossein leaned down and shook our hands, after each shake kissing the tips of his fingers in accordance with local custom. Driss asked if we could stay at his house. Dismounting to walk with us, Hossein said he would have it no other way. In Berber culture, hospitality graces even the simplest of homes.

On the outskirts of the village we had passed a circular lot some 50 feet (15 meters) wide with a stout pole poking through a foot of cut barley. Three young men in turbans and sweaty white smocks were threshing the grain, using whips to drive a half dozen donkeys tethered in a line to the pole. As the animals plodded through the grain, the dust flew up and caught the sun like powdered gold. In the surrounding fields of wheat and alfalfa, men plowed by mule, reaped by hand.
 
As we entered the village, children saw me and cried, "Arrumi!" ("Roman!"), an offhand tribute to rulers 16 centuries gone and the name by which Berbers still refer to Westerners. Little appeared to have changed since the days of the Latins: Barefoot boys used sticks to prod sluggish cattle toward their pens; turbaned men sharpened scythes on whetstones; women trudged by, amphorae of sloshing water on their backs.
 
Hossein lived in a dwelling typical of Berbers in the High Atlas—a squat house with stone walls and a wood-raftered roof. The ground floor was a stable in which he quartered his mule, a cow, and a few scrawny chickens. In a room on the second floor, a tarnished bronze dagger dangled from a hook; from another hung a long-dormant clock. Carpets of faded orange, red, and green wool overlapped on the floor. To freshen the air, Hossein opened the windows, and in rushed flies from the stable. Shooing them away, we stretched out on the carpets as Hossein ordered unseen women in another room to prepare lunch.
 
Soon we were joined on the carpets by Bassou, a visiting teenage neighbor dressed in jeans and a jaunty black fedora, and by Hossein's young daughters, Itto and Hadda, who wore floral blouses and skirts, with wool leggings  underneath. ("Itto" is a Berber name one rarely hears in urban Morocco, or even outside the eastern High Atlas. For decades the Moroccan authorities prohibited registering children with Berber names but in recent years have grown slightly more tolerant.) I asked the girls their ages. Both shrugged. Keeping track of birthdays isn't considered important in rural Morocco. Itto, scarved and peering bashfully at us from between her fingers, appeared to be about ten; her sterner sister, Hadda, looked older.
 
Bassou pointed to Hossein. "Even Hossein doesn't know his age," he said lightheartedly in Arabic. "He's just old and senile!" Hossein smiled at me, apparently uncomprehending. To get by in the cities, where men often go in search of work, Berbers must learn Arabic. But here in the High Atlas, where most inhabitants speak Berber, Bassou's fluency in Arabic distinguished him. He attends secondary school near Midelt—Tamalout has only a newly built elementary school—on a scholarship and was proud of it. "I'm good in math and science," he said. "I read a lot of books in French and have French friends. I want to go to university." He hoped to use his education to escape the poverty of his village for a more promising future in the city, but getting a job in Morocco, for Berbers and Arabs alike, frequently depends not on talent but on connections.
 
Hossein brought us the first course of lunch, a bowl of clarified butter and shards of home-baked bread. He told us that he owned one cow, but to earn money, he rented it to a well-off neighbor, who took most of its milk; he had a small field on which he grew barley and wheat; he collected firewood in the surrounding cedar forest. Though ever thanking God for his lot, Hossein was as poor and thin as most Berbers we were to meet on our trip, and he would be lucky to grow enough food to feed his family.
 
During the second course—a watery stew of onions and goat meat served in a clay terrine—Hossein showed he knew at least some rudimentary Arabic. He asked me, in Arabic, "Shall I pass you the meat?" I looked puzzled, and Bassou laughed: Hossein had meant salt.
 
"By God, my tongue will lead me to jail!" declared Hossein. He told how he had recently been summoned to testify in court against a fellow villager charged with logging illegally in the forest. Through a Berber-Arabic interpreter, Hossein testified in favor of the accused, but he understood enough Arabic to suspect that the interpreter, who'd probably been bribed, was distorting his words to convict the man. "I told my story to the judge in my own words," Hossein exclaimed. "I had sworn to tell the truth and only the truth, and that's what I did." The accused was acquitted.
 
Hossein was lucky to find an in-court interpreter, which the Berber Manifesto demands. With its emphasis on protecting Berbers from discrimination because of their language, the manifesto ignores another critical issue: Arabic-speaking Moroccans also face difficulties, especially when dealing with the government, where French is widely spoken.
 
When we reached Imilchil, I decided we needed a second mule, to lessen the burden on our first one and to carry us when we were tired. Driss and Khalid visited the Sunday market and bought a fine ebony male. Like our other mule, he neither kicked nor bit and looked hardy enough for the trails ahead. We set out, climbing higher and higher into the pink moonscape mountains beyond Imilchil toward Plateau Kousser, the land of Berber nomads.
 
Four days later we reached the plateau: a sea of cratered stony swells and spatulated lava valleys that taxed us as much as any mountain would have. As the sun dropped, we neared the sole permanent dwelling we were to see on the plateau—a house of rock and cement built into the mountainside just above a gorge. The matron of the house, whose name was Fatima, emerged dressed in the mishmash of colorful wraps worn by nomadic Berber women. We asked to spend the night; warily, she invited us in.
 
We sat down for tea in the cool of her stone sitting room, beside the loom on which she wove carpets from her sheep's wool. While her husband works as a laborer in nearby Zaouia Ahansal during the summer, she and her teenage son, Ali, stay up here to care for their small flocks of goats and sheep, as well as a few chickens—a common situation that leaves Berber women in charge of households for months at a time.

Fatima had seen me arrive on muleback. Now she told us that a girl here had recently fallen from a mule and died, as there was no doctor nearby to help her, and no way to call one. There are few doctors in the High Atlas, and practically no pharmacies or phones or post offices—no surprise, considering the rugged terrain. But Berbers cite these deficiencies as evidence that the government has avoided developing the region to keep all power in its hands.
 
"No king has ever come up here to see how we live," Fatima announced in a commanding voice, holding her green scarf to her tattooed chin. "Our representatives in parliament only come around at election time to promise things they never do." She began a litany of complaints: Officials in the local government steal the funds sent from Rabat for the building of roads (leaving her with a five-hour hike to the nearest dirt track), the provision of water (the closest well is an hour's walk away), and for the construction of clinics (the nearest hospital is in Azilal, ten hours away). And then there was drought, she said.
 
"There's no way to make things better," her son, Ali, said. "Everything here is done by bribes."

Fatima told us that once during Hassan II's reign—she couldn't recall the exact year—300 irate Berbers gathered in Ouaouizarht (pronounced wa-wi-zart), the regional center, from which they planned to go to Rabat and protest against their government's neglect. The provincial governor learned of their plans and sent truckloads of soldiers to stop them. The soldiers' appearance scared the crowd into dispersal. Since then no one has dared suggest further protest. Night fell. Fatima lit a lantern, and, as a stew of chicken and potatoes bubbled in the pot, she began working on her loom, weaving a carpet from scraps of wool. She had spoken her mind in a way Berber women in the mountains often do. But even Berbers who are forthright on other matters rarely offer direct criticism of the king and parliament, as Fatima did. They expect little from their government and voice no interest in the movement purporting to act in their name in the cities.
 
"The Amazigh [Berber] movement is just talk," Khalid said. "No one cares up here." Was he for having Berber taught in schools? No. "We Berbers want to keep our language secret, but city people want to learn it so they can do business in the countryside." Driss disagreed, and said he looked forward to the day when all Moroccans would learn Berber. The two of them argued frequently during our trip, which I took as an indication of how hard it was for rural and urban Berbers to agree on anything, from the Berber Manifesto to whose turn it was to do the dishes.
 
"Go tell the world about the fate of the nomads!" Fatima enjoined me at seven the next morning, as she accepted the money we handed her for her hospitality. "We have no roads, no hospital, no nothing up here!" Her complaints followed us out the door and down the wooded path, as we began the last leg of our journey.
 
Grand vertical sheets of limestone announced the waterfalls of Imouzzer des Ida Ou Tanane, above the village of that name. We were 51 days out of Midelt. A trail led past souvenir stands to the falls, and Driss and I followed it, leaving Khalid with the mules. On arrival we found not the splendid crashing torrents I'd seen in photos but only one narrow stream dropping from rock ledges into a mossy pool. The drought affecting the High Atlas had forced the government to divert the river for irrigation, all but drying up the falls.
 
There was something symbolic about this. We had traveled across steep terrain as parched and depleted as it was remote. Drought and poverty force Berbers to quit the mountains for the cities, where they need Arabic to get by and French to prosper and where they adopt urban culture to fit in. Hunger, I saw on my trek, threatens the culture of the High Atlas more than anything.
 
I looked at Driss, who had talked so much about his desire to help his people. If illiterate mountain folk show little interest in the Berber movement, with its secular and Francophile tendencies, educated urbanites like Driss suit it well. But in our last weeks together he revealed his most practical hope for the future: immigration to Canada. "There's no future for me in Morocco," he said, referring to the sad state of tourism due to fear of international terrorism. "I'm at the age when I want to have a family, so I want to join my sister in Montreal."

Berbers living in the High Atlas, of course, have no such option. For the thousands who move to the cities, Morocco offers a harsh existence—life in a shantytown on the outskirts of Casablanca or Rabat and a scramble for cash to survive. For those Berbers who remain behind, there is hardship, too, and hunger. But there is also the solid rock of home underfoot, and the perfect stillness, and the undiluted pride of the Free Person.

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